- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

HBO relishes setting itself apart from the rest of the broadcast network TV pack. You can tell by the premium pay channel’s uppity and somewhat elitist slogan — “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.”

In a sense, you can’t blame HBO for feeling full of itself. The network, after all, aired such buzz-heavy hits as “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under ” and such critically acclaimed shows as “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Real Sports.”

But in the past several months, a strange thing has happened. You don’t find many people buzzing about HBO anymore.

Of course, HBO will point to the 32 Emmy Awards it received last year — the most in HBO history and three times the number of any other network.

Of course, HBO won’t let you forget it nabbed four Golden Globes — the most of any network.

Of course, HBO will kindly point out that it wooed 400,000 more subscribers in 2004.

But those gaudy numbers can’t hide the fact that HBO is facing more pressure than ever to produce a hit on the scale of “Desperate Housewives.” For the first time in a long time, the mighty cable network doesn’t have a hit water-cooler show to brag about.

“Sex and the City” is gone. “Six Feet Under” has been in a creative slump for two years. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is nowhere to be found. “K Street” bombed quickly. “Carnivale” was a pretentious bore and finally canceled. Only six people watch “The Wire.”

And “The Sopranos” — well, we all know glaciers move faster than creator David Chase does to produce another season.

In a sense, FX has become the new HBO by airing such edgy shows as “The Shield,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me.”

So, what’s the next big thing for HBO?

HBO is hoping its “Entourage,” a sly comedy about a young stud movie star (Adrian Grenier) and his four longtime New York buddies. The show, which was scheduled to return last night (9 p.m.) in fine form, is skillfully written, funny and poignant. It has all the necessary ingredients that should make the show HBO’s hot comedy.

David Baldwin is an executive vice president of program planning for HBO and Cinemax. He believes “Entourage” is on the verge of a breakout year and compares it to where “Sex and the City” was, buzz-wise, in the early years.

“The first year of ‘Sex and the City’ was OK,” Mr. Baldwin says, referring to initial audience reaction. “It was just a bunch of white chicks sitting around talking and cussing and taking their blouses off once in a while, but in terms of the overall buzz of that show, we really didn’t hit until the second and third season.

“You can look at the [potential] growth of ‘Entourage’ the same way. I’m not saying it’s going to equal “Sex,” but I think in terms of a buzz show, that has it.”

HBO is also pinning its hopes on “The Comeback” (which also debuted last night), a 13-episode comedy starring “Friends” veteran Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a one-time TV A-lister and star of the old hit show “I’m It.” Now Valerie is a sad fortysomething has-been and desperate to get back in the biz.

“The Comeback’s” humor is dry, like “The Larry Sanders Show.” As Miss Kudrow has said, “It’s a show within a show about a woman who was on another show.” But what “The Comeback,” produced by “Sex and the City” veteran Michael Patrick King, lacks in big laughs, it makes up for in on-target commentary on Hollywood’s heartless entertainment industry.

On the drama front, HBO is taking a huge risk on “Rome,” a big-budget series that tells the story of Julius Caesar through the eyes of two of his soldiers. Word is the show, scheduled to debut this fall, will cost a whopping $100 million the first year.

“‘Rome’ takes a genuine fresh look at the period in an authentic voice that people will understand once they get there,” says Chris Albrecht, the network’s chairman and chief executive. “And the idea of a story that took place in which the republic was morphing into the empire, and men of power were being displaced has all of the themes that resonate today in contemporary America.”

As for all the talk of HBO’s slump in programming, Mr. Baldwin doesn’t put much stock in it.

“I don’t think anyone is saying we’re at a critical juncture,” he says. “HBO has had the same strategy now for three decades: create a network of programs that people feel are worth paying for.”

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